Comments from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte comparing journalists to “spies” drew laughter from President Trump after a reporter asked about human rights in the Philippines.
During a press conference in Manila before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Trump lauded his rapport with Duterte, a strongman whose violent anti-drug crackdown crackdown has sparked international condemnation.
“We’ve had a great relationship,” said Trump. “This [meeting] has been very successful.” He went on to praise the Philippines, a long-time U.S. ally, saying, “I’ve really enjoyed being here.”
But then a journalist attempted to press Trump on human rights issues — causing Duterte to intervene.
“Whoa, whoa. This is not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting,” Duterte commented. “We would be talking on matters that are of interest of both the Philippines and [the United States]. With you around, guys,” he added, gesturing to the reporters, “you are the spies.” Trump proceeded to laugh.
Dutere’s government is in the midst of a bloody effort to eradicate drugs and crime from the Philippines. Thousands upon thousands of people have died — many at the hands of vigilantes and private citizens — as part of a response to Duterte’s call to “kill the idiots” in the case of those resisting arrest. The president has also advocated for extrajudicial killings more generally, threatening any who stand in the way of governmental anti-crime efforts.
That hardline attitude extends to the press. At least 177 journalists have been killed in the Philippines in the past three decades — among the highest in the world. Under Duterte, that situation has only worsened. The president’s war on the media and violent rhetoric has attracted headlines since his election in 2016.
“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” the Filipinx president said only a few months after taking office. His comments came in response to the murder of a crime reporter.
“Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong,” Duterte continued.
Prior to Trump’s visit to the Philippines, Duterte told reporters he had no plans to answer U.S. questions about human rights in the country.
“You want to ask a question, I’ll give you an answer,” Duterte said. “Lay off. That is not your business. That is my business. I take care of my country and I will nurture my country to health.”
Duterte’s disdain for human rights and the media went over poorly with the Obama administration. The Filipinx president told his U.S. counterpart to “go to hell” after U.S. officials criticized Duterte’s drug war. He also called Obama a “son of a whore” prior to a planned meeting between the two leaders, which was later canceled. But if anything that animosity seems to have paved the way for a friendlier rapport with Trump.
“The relationship [between Duterte and Trump] appears to be very warm and very friendly,” Duterte’s spokesperson told reporters. “They’ve been very candid in their dealings, and it’s very apparent that both of them have a person who they consider as not their best friend. They have similar feelings toward former U.S. President Barack Obama.”
They also seem to share similar feelings about the press. Trump has repeatedly accused the media of fabricating “fake news” in an effort to undercut his administration, calling coverage “dishonest” and singling out reporters for chastisement. That attitude seems to have shaped his response on Monday. As for the original question about human rights, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday that the issue did come up when the two leaders met, noting that the comments centered on ISIS and the drug war. She did not elaborate.
Monday was not the first time Trump has appeared to encourage anti-media sentiment recently. The president is currently on a 12-day trip across Asia, part of an effort to build ties and cement relationships. While in China last week, Trump declined to take questions from reporters, breaking with decades of precedent: U.S. presidents typically insist on taking questions in order to make a point about free speech. Trump, however, declined — reportedly because of “Chinese insistence.”